It happens to everyone stepping into a position of authority: The Leadership Test.
Like an airplane ascending through the clouds in the early stages of a flight, we can expect some rough air when we first step into a new leadership role. Our teammates are trying to see if we have what it takes to lead them well, so consciously or unconsciously, they will challenge us in a variety of ways.
Pass the test and we earn their trust. Fail it, and it’s going to be a long turbulent flight ahead. So consider this the captain’s warning to buckle up. Here’s what those leadership tests might look like, and some thoughts on how best to respond.
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The Crew Has a Beef
It is a Captain of another kind who gives us an interesting example of how to deal with challenges to authority. Captain George Pollard took command of his first whaleship, the Essex, in 1819. He and his crew were headed to the Pacific for a years-long voyage. As Nathaniel Philbrick describes the incident in In the Heart of the Sea, the challenge to the captain’s authority came early in the trip, in the form of a small wooden tub.
Crew members received their meal ration in a small wooden container called a “kid.” They were upset because their daily portion of beef had been scanty and over-salted. One morning while the captain was down below, they deposited the kid on the quarterdeck so he could see the poor quality of the food. Then they retreated toward the bow to see what he would do.
Pollard soon came on deck, saw the kid of beef, and as Philbrick writes, “his complexion seemed to shift from red to blue to almost black.” Food was already a sensitive issue for him – the ship’s owners had shorted him to save money, so he was forced to mete it out sparingly. But equally important to him was the obvious fact that the crew had knowingly trespassed on the sacred space of the quarterdeck, where only officers were allowed.
This was a double challenge to his authority, and as a first-time captain, Pollard felt he could not let it slide.
The Captain’s Response
Normally a kind, reticent man, on this occasion, Pollard exploded. Pacing the quarterdeck and working himself into a rage, he called the crew aft. As they timorously gathered, Pollard began shouting, punctuating his words by spitting tobacco juice onto the deck. “You’ll throw your kid in my face, you damned scoundrels, will you?”
He demanded they tell him who had placed the kid on the quarterdeck, but the dumbfounded crew remained fearfully silent. His harangue continued for some minutes, and one sailor feared that a flogging was imminent. After more shouting and oaths, though, Pollard finally dismissed all hands, saying, “If I hear any more from you about provisions, I’ll tie the whole of you up together and whip it out of you.”
By the next morning the captain had returned to his quiet, kindly ways, but the atmosphere aboard the Essex had palpably changed. Pollard had shown that he had the backbone to assert his authority, and from that day forward, there were no further complaints about provisions. *
What Captain Pollard experienced is something that all new leaders go through – a time of testing. We may not be getting ready to take the helm of a whaling ship, but we can still expect to be tested all the same. And if we are leading former peers, that test can be even more difficult to pass.
One of the first challenges is recognizing that we are being challenged in the first place. Here are some of the ways the leadership test can come at us.
Forms of Challenge
The ”slide” rule. One of the earliest tests we may face is the temptation to let something slide, particularly if the error or omission was from one of our friends. From wandering into the meeting a few minutes late, to missing deadlines, or submitting sub-par work, our “friends” may test our boundaries by coming up a little short to see what we’ll do. Will we cut them a little slack?
The blind eye. A problem or an opportunity presents itself, and one of our teammates may point out that a simple way to deal with it is to turn a “blind eye” or cut a little corner. Sign something that’s not quite accurate, ignore something that might be unpleasant to deal with, or allow a rule to bend “just this once.” Will we look away?
Silent consent. Back before the promotion, when someone cracked an inappropriate joke, or showed disrespect to others, we might have rolled our eyes and kept quiet: “That’s just Bob being Bob; what are you gonna do?” But now if we don’t do or say something, we are effectively condoning bad behavior. Will we keep silent?
Passive-aggressive resistance. Whether it’s the silent treatment, cracking sarcastic jokes, pretending to forget deadlines, or withholding key information, passive-aggressive acts can sabotage the effectiveness of the team and our leadership of it. This behavior may stem from feelings of hurt or insecurity, but if not addressed, it can poison the atmosphere and drag the whole team down. Will we face the aggressor?
The overhead pass. To avoid having to report to us, teammates may appeal directly to our boss for decisions and guidance. Going over our head effectively neutralizes our position as leader, especially if the boss cooperates with them. Will we try to intercept?
Deciding in absentia. Especially if teammates are our former peers, they may simply make some decisions on their own when they should have first gotten our OK. Even if they chose correctly, saying nothing when this happens opens the door for more of the same. Will we pull on the reins?
Setting the Conditions
Captain Pollard’s response to his leadership test was to throw a temper tantrum and make threats. That may have worked for him, but we’re not on an 19th century whaleship. What is instructive about his response, though, was how he adapted himself to fit what he thought the circumstances called for.
Part of leading effectively is being willing to do just that – to step outside our comfort zones to adapt to the needs of the situation. Each of the tests ends in a question, and the right answer to those questions can bring us face to face with personal discomfort. But as Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership puts it, to grow and succeed as leaders we have to “learn to be uncomfortable.”
Oddly enough, we can reduce some of that future discomfort by doing something now that makes many leaders uncomfortable: talking about values and ethics.
If our goal is to influence the behavior of our teammates, it helps to give them an unambiguous set of guideposts. Setting clear cornerstone values and expectations for behavior will give everyone a good reference point for how we want them to act.
Second is making sure that we ourselves are living by those values. There is no faster way to lose the trust of our teammates than trying to hold them accountable to standards that we ourselves ignore.
Third, be as clear as possible about expectations, limits, deadlines, and processes to minimize confusion, real or pretended, about what is required. Take the time to think about these things, and write them down. Share it with some trusted co-workers and the boss to get their input.
Then, before settling on them, imagine having to actually enforce them. Would we be willing to hold a teammate accountable to this? What about a friend?
Finally share them with the team and use them as a point of conversation when you meet individually. Do they understand? Do they have any questions?
Even if we do all this, that doesn’t mean the leadership test won’t come. When it does, how should we respond?
Passing the Leadership Test
Stay emotionally neutral. Unlike Captain Pollard, Signe Whitson counsels that emotionally neutral responses are the best way to deal with passive aggressive challenges. “If the passive aggressive person senses that she has gotten under your skin, the balance of power is already shifted in her favor.” One way is to simply ignore them; most of the team will understand what is going on. Give it some time and the behavior may subside. If that doesn’t work, read on.
Go one-on-one. When his leadership test came, Captain Pollard chose to rant at the whole crew and threaten mass punishment. More often it’s best to even the odds. Instead of confronting the whole team, go one-on-one. If the difficulty seems to be with one person, speak privately with them about the issue. When the conversation is taken out of public forum, it’s easier for everyone to save face.
Go strong on values. When it comes to values, a strong response is the best one. Any indication that we might be open to fudging the numbers or bending a rule will open the door for creative “misunderstanding” and further probing. Keep that list of cornerstone values handy, and like Captain Pollard defending the quarterdeck, allow no trespass.
Enlist the boss. Especially when it comes to any “overhead passes,” if our boss allows our teammates to petition him routinely, then he is effectively undermining our position. If this might be a problem, ask him to redirect teammates back to us. We can help ourselves in this respect by keeping the boss informed about what we are doing so that they aren’t blindsided and feel they have to intervene.
Watch the friend zone. If we were promoted from among our peers, our co-workers will be especially sensitive to how we deal with our friends on the team. Though we may be tempted to cut a buddy some slack, we should first ask ourselves if we would do the same for someone we wouldn’t normally choose to hang out with. Calmly explain this perspective. If they are really our friends, they will understand.
Follow-through. Empty threats just demonstrate weakness. If we promise consequences for inappropriate behavior, painful as they may be, we have to follow-through with them promptly, or the future value of our words will fall, and our team will listen to us less instead of more.
Lose the ego. Finally, the danger in all of this is that we get so wrapped up in asserting our prerogatives that we lose sight of our two most important tasks: getting the job done and taking care of our people while doing it. The more we base our decisions on these two things, the better off everyone will be.
The Leadership Test – The Takeaway
Soon after any promotion there will be leadership tests, and they can come in many forms. As we realign boundaries and redefine relationships, people want to understand what rules have changed.
Like a toddler who keeps pushing the limits to see what he is allowed to do, it can help to see the leadership test not so much as defiance, but as trying to see if the limit is really where we said it was.
If the boundary is clear and firm like a wall, the testing will soon subside. But if the line is indistinct or porous like a sponge, the tests will keep coming.
We don’t need to shout and spit on the quarterdeck like Captain Pollard, but our team does need strength and consistency from us as their leader. The question is, are we willing to get uncomfortable, and give them what they need?
* Later in the voyage, the Essex would be rammed by a rogue sperm whale, destroying the ship and forcing the crew to try to survive on the Pacific Ocean in whaleboats. If you like non-fiction that reads like a novel, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleshp Essex would be a good addition to your book shelf.